Last week, hundreds of fast food workers across the country went on strike, demanding better wages and working conditions. It’s not hard to see why: nearly half of all restaurant workers—including fast food workers—live in or near poverty. As Terrence Wise, a fast food worker who joined the strike in Kansas City, put it, “our children watch us go to work each day, only to come home to eviction notices, shut-off notices, and bare cupboards.”

While these conditions are disturbing enough in and of themselves, they actually have larger consequences for the American economy. For far too many in the United States, work that once provided a clear path to the middle class now swells the ranks of America’s “working poor.”

With more than 10 million employees, the restaurant industry is one of the fastest growing sectors of the American economy. But in reality, that growth is little more than smoke and mirrors, disguising the reduced hours and stagnant wages of workers inflating the bottom lines of corporate restaurant executives. Record profits reported by the industry aren’t translating to workers, who face scant benefits, little to no job security, unpredictable pay, and increasingly unreliable work schedules.

The lack of basic labor standards in the restaurant industry makes the sector’s growth both deceiving and unsustainable. Hiding behind misleading numbers and clinging to a desperate claim that growth isn’t possible otherwise, the restaurant industry is contributing to the erosion of the middle class, keeping millions of workers in poverty and putting our economy—and future economic growth—in a precarious position. Historically, American economic growth has been directly linked to a strong middle class, but by keeping millions of its workers in poverty, the restaurant industry is setting our economy up to fail.

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